Most commentators characterise this Ray Danton-directed vehicle for Robert Quarry, briefly hot from the Count Yorga films and credited here as co-producer, as a Manson exploitation movie. This is fair enough as far as it goes, but it feels more like a Californian riff on Jean Rollin’s vampire movies, albeit with a PG level of sex (even among hippie free spirits there’s no nudity except from the back). There’s still debate about whether the filmmakers hoped to make an official entry in the Yorga series but didn’t want to get into legal hassles with the owners of the character. This villain is called Khorda and Quarry may well be wearing his Yorga fangs, though he also sports a beard, a hippie wig, unflattering robes, a different line in mesmeric patter, and a backstory covering thousands of years. Note that the poster tagline of The Return of Count Yorga was ‘The Deathmaster – back from beyond the grave’.
In a wordless opening, recorder-playing mute ‘Barbado’ (Le Sesne Wilson) charms a coffin out of the sea and strangles a surfer. From the coffin emerges Khorda (Quarry), a vaguely-Indian, ancient vampire who dresses in guru chic and insinuates himself as top dog of a castle-commune. The first to succumb are a biker chick and a hairy guy, who soon sprout fangs. Khorda has a few of the usual vamp licks (supernaturally cracking a mirror that doesn’t reflect him) as well as some odder ones (his face goes white when he shows fangs). The rather dislikeable hero Pico (Bill Ewing) is a semi-hispanic kung fu kid with an American Indian hairdo, who escapes from chains in the castle’s dungeons and dips his hands in a bowl of leeches, seeing off Barbado using the unique method of tracing a cross in blood on his cheek.
Pico hooks up with head shop owner ‘Pop’ (character actor John Fiedler, mildest of the Twelve Angry Men), who plays the wise elder Van Helsing role in a snappy knitted waistcoat. There are folk songs from Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett (who gets vampirised), a lot of stoned chatter (‘hey, man, don’t split, we groove on what you say.’), fabulous hippie fashions, and a deal of philosophic maundering (‘the nights of our lives are always filled with meaningless screams’). As usual with these things, the counterculture is in the end associated with supernatural evil – though a biker’s iron cross momentarily spooks the vampire.
The ending mixes cynical licks from several then-recent films, but not the memorable twist of Count Yorga. Pico makes the mistake of staking Khorda’s coffin before opening it and finds he has skewered nice old Pops, whereupon Khorda shows up for some cackling and gloating and gets the leeches thrown in his face. He bleeds a lot and trips onto the stake, his death causing all his acolytes to crumble (a mass version of the human sandcastle effect previously unique to Count Yorga Vampire). Discovering his girl Mona (Brenda Dickson) decaying among the dead, Pico goes mad, prompting a high-angle frame of him screaming (a la Matthew Hopkins Witchfinder General) and a cut to symbolic shattered glass (a la The Trip). The horror scenes rely on dark facial close-ups of snarling with hand-held judder and ducking, and most of it takes place inside the underlit real-life castle. It’s a slight picture, less distinctive than other Danton horrors (Hannah Queen of the Vampires, Simon King of the Witches, Psychic Killer) but its flavour-of-the-times feel commands attention and the script (credited to R.L. Grove) comes up with a few new-ish or unusual variants on the vampire theme. There’s an unusual, evocative score from Bill Marx, who also did the Yorga films and Scream, Blacula, Scream.